Everything is not awesome for Alliance as they go to conference and prepare for May’s elections; though @keithbelfast puts up a spirited defence …

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Alliance’s party conference takes place in La Mon Hotel on Saturday. Expect to hear speeches from their Euro candidate Anna Lo, the Minister for Employment & Learning Stephen Farry (whose department failed to go away you know), as well as deputy leader and East Belfast MP Naomi Long.

With the party conference so close to the May elections – though still outside the broadcasting “closed season” – expect to hear from budding council candidates wanting to make their mark on print and TV coverage. Education will be on the agenda too.

There’s been much joking online that party leader and Justice Minister David Ford should enter the hall to deliver his speech with the theme tune from The LEGO Movie playing in the background.

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I gonna win forever, let’s party forever
We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re all working in harmony

He won’t.

3D modelling AllianceI doubt Alliance are looking forward to May’s elections. Unless someone – or some event – suddenly inspires apathetic voters to come out and cast their ballots and upset the mix, the Euro election result already feels like a foregone conclusion. [I’ll eat a paper hat if the three current MEPs aren’t returned to Brussels.]

While NI21 are also jockeying for position in the centre of the political playground, their long overdue internal decision on a Euro candidate – never mind public announcement – is doing nothing to bolster their minimal presence on the political radar. Their brand of “fresh politics” is still fresh out of memorable policies (other than fewer tatty flags). Their two MLAs live on the oxygen of interventions within the chamber, and John’s well-crafted speeches that are heard but too few people.

Yet while NI21′s electoral success may prove miserable in May, they’ll certainly borrow some Alliance voters and preferences in the process.

As Alex Kane suggests in his latest News Letter column:

… in Anna Lo they have probably the best Euro candidate they’ve ever had. They have no mission of winning the seat—and they know it. Their task is simply to maximize the trickle-down vote from Euro to council candidates and, more importantly, to stop NI21 in their tracks.

Looking towards the council elections, Alliance’s opportunities for expansion seem low, with the politics of extremism to the fore in the wake of the flags dispute, the breakdown of Haass and the On The Runs debacle.

Like all parties, there is a churn of candidates. Though Alliance seem to be losing some of their younger and middle-aged candidates who are giving up and not seeking a new term on the new councils rather than retiring at the end of a protracted career in local government. Given the grief and pressure some have been under it’s hard to blame them for taking an early bath and getting their lives back.

For a brief window in December 2012, senior figures in the party were not alone in believing that the flag protests and disruption would leave a positive legacy on Alliance. Voter sympathy was high with politicians under threat, and offices being targeted. Liberal-minded people joined the party. (Though they joined in relatively small numbers, and not all of them got involved in local associations and will be out leafleting.)

In a thugs versus gentle people narrative, Alliance looked like early leaders. But the flags protests rumbled on and on and on, and while some unionist leaders were privately nonplussed with the Alliance-coloured leaflets distributed in the run-up to the Belfast City Council vote they never admitted it in public and the political result was a slow stalemate.

In the end, while all parties had some reservations with the compromises necessary to sign up to the final Haass/O’Sullivan draft, fingers were pointed at Alliance for being the most vocally discordant at the final session. Perhaps compromise was always going to be most difficult for Alliance given their long-standing and long-understood policies on the issues being discussed?

The Unionist Forum is dead, leaving unionist parties able to independently flex their short term policy muscles and offer voters knee jerk declarations on flags and rhetoric that bolsters their belief in the centrality of victims and statements that deprecate their willingness to stand alongside Sinn Fein.

At least David Ford can rejoice that he is largely untainted by On The Runs, in the blessed position of being unaware and uninvolved. It’ll take voters’ minds away from the political power play over the Justice Minister’s quite reasonable attempt changing the minimum experience required by a future PSNI Chief Constable.

Fundamentally, this year the hopes and agreements secretly brokered along the way towards the final Haass/O’Sullivan draft have faded. So too has the potential for a tangible political demonstration of cohesion and sharing that Alliance might have hoped to point to for May’s election.

There’s no point Alliance being too defensive on Saturday, playing the tenacity card, or seeking to explain away why they are misunderstood.

But I’m beaten when it comes to suggesting how David Ford and other representatives will pluck success from the depressed jaws of defeat mediocrity. It’ll be an up-hill struggle to excite voters and get extra first preferences in May.

Being ‘good’ councillors may help retain seats, but is it enough to make gains whenever the more prominent MLAs are so easily and publicly dismissed and marginalised by the larger parties? Their amendments often seem toxic. Their contributions not valued or not listened too by larger parties.

(The nuclear option of actually resigning from the Justice Ministry when the next instance of Executive party bullying occurs could be the only step left to rekindle awareness of what Alliance stand for and force the other parties to learn to play fair without Alliance around the table.)

I’m surprised by how depressing a narrative has built up – in my head, at least – about Alliance. So I asked one of the post-flags joiners Keith Anderson (@keithbelfast) why he was optimistic about Alliance and he came back a short while later with a 300 word defence of the party. (Note that he’s speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the party!)

There’s an annoying and belligerent consistency to the Alliance Party which I admire. Although it could be fairly described as liberal, and maybe unfairly as middle-class, a subtlety in the make-up of its membership exists. What I’ve seen in the past year and a half is a patch-work quilt of people from both ends of our political spectrum, both sides of our religious landscape, from all corners of our community, and everywhere in-between.

The common thread which unites the party is evident in the strong principles, applied in the pursuit for lasting peace and more importantly, real inclusion. Not that fake inclusion where we pretend to share the likes of schools, though only resources and only at certain times. But sharing the important things that actually make a difference like learning, friendship and ideas.

What happened at City Hall in early December 2012 was the result of brave people acting on Alliance principles. What has happened since then has been a very vocal, heated and sometimes violent airing of our province’s struggles with symbolism and identity.

The principle of a shared future has long been discussed, almost to the point where the term “shared future” has nearly lost all meaning. And maybe that’s something the party needs to look at. The principles will never change. The goal is still there; an inclusive and shared future for everyone in this province, regardless of what the future holds. Maybe we just need to find a better, new way of fighting for it.

From my point of view, Alliance is at the forefront of actively working not only to gain a “shared future”, but also to make sure we don’t lose what we’ve already achieved.

So, erm, to answer your question – I can’t think of any other NI party which has consistently stuck to its guns, in the face of such pressure. I think this is something everyone involved in (and who votes for) the party should be proud of.

I await with interest to discover the tone and topics of the speeches and the mood of the delegates on Saturday.

And a quick reminder the Alliance conference isn’t the only political event in the east of the city on Saturday 22. Labour NI have organised a What Women Want policy conference in The Pavilion at Stormont. And not to be outdone, the DUP have a similar session on Friday 21 in the Park Avenue Hotel!

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  • Gopher

    The main strength Alliance have is they are not Alex Attwood or the SDLP in that they are not beholden to under a quota of votes in West Belfast. If your not constitutionally (or religiously) fanatical and in work there is little point voting SDLP.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Good article, Keith. About to pop off to work here, but I might add a few notes.

    The party has a job in persuading people that the third Euro seat is actually winnable. I can hear everyone laughing, but then, I remember people laughing in early 2010 whenever party supporters started believing that Naomi Long could win in East Belfast. A number of the commentators who said that would be impossible were proven wrong.

    I’m not going to predict a victory in the European elections, but the conditions exist for Alliance to obtain its best result in its history. Unionism is in a mess and is likely to see severe fragmentation of its vote, on both the hardline side and the soft/moderate side; and nationalists are warmer towards Alliance than they have ever been before. The party is also running a strong candidate with lots of profile and plenty of cross-community appeal.

    Regarding some of the other points – it is not important that other parties listen to Alliance’s point of view. It is important that the electorate do, and when people see parties falling over themselves to block perfectly reasonable measures, such as removing pointless barriers to the appointment of a future PSNI Chief Constable, or requiring that local councils are held accountable through keeping audio recordings of their meetings for the public record, the idea is that they conclude that they need more Alliance representatives elected if there is to be any chance of sensible things getting done.

    I’m not at all worried about NI21. I am sure they may pick votes off Alliance. But the fact that they have not nominated a candidate yet suggests to me that they are not taking any of this seriously. Eagle-eyed observers will have noted that Anna Lo is front and center of a lot of Alliance PR recently (such as the amendments to the local government legislation in the Assembly etc). Because NI21 haven’t announced their candidate yet they are missing out on opportunities to build him/her up; NI21 supporters have nobody to talk about. It’s unclear, as yet, that NI21 even have the financial capacity to nominate a candidate which must cast doubt over their capacity to fund and operate an election campaign. This is all terrible strategy and belies, as I’ve already said, a party that isn’t doing any planning or strategy at all – it has been known for long before NI21 even existed that there would be a European election to plan for. I feel sorry for NI21 activists who are either discovering, or will discover soon, that their job is mostly to do with keeping Basil in his seat so that he can keep phoning into the Nolan show.

    Strategically I am a lot more concerned about the Greens. Good candidate, good performance in the Assembly, good personal appeal and they have policies that people can identify with, moving away from the tree-hugger stuff. It goes without saying that I think Alliance’s story is a better one, but the party will need to work to ensure that it meets the challenge set down by the Greens and the party will need to maintain a convincing gap with them. I think Anna’s selection is part of that – she spent some time in the Assembly campaigning for the independence of the Environment Agency and for the introduction of other similar measures.

    @keithforbelfast’s summary is pretty good. Alliance looks, internally, like a broader coalition than it was when I joined 20 years ago. There are challenges to overcome, as there will be for any political party, but I think the party is in better shape than it has been for a long time.

  • Charles_Gould

    Gopher: SDLP stand for labour values, the NHS, trade union values, employment rights and so forth.

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    I dont think things are THAT bad for Alliance Party.
    Certainly there is no real challenge from NI21 who seem to have lost a lot of their enthusiasm. Still a two man band. And just lacking gravitas.
    Certainly there will be a trickle down help to council candidates from Anna Lo.

    Theres definitely a growing generation gap in the Party. Five of their eight MLAs are in their 60s. In some respects Anna Lo is actually their youngest member as Lytlle and Cochrane have ideas older than their actual age.
    A few people standing down well in advance of the next Assembly is something that would be good for the party and be an incentive to the second tier in the party.
    By any reasonable standards, there is a ceiling to the number of professional politicians Alliance can have …say ten elected plus back up staff but they do well on SpADs….Dickson, McCarthy, Lunn…and while Duncan Morrow is being groomed to succeed or supplement Lo in South Belfast, there are no obvious second tier politicians around.
    Hamilton, Bradshaw merely frustrate the better claims of people who have been longer in the Party.

    They have effectively done very well out of the suburban ghetto in which they have placed themselves. To well.
    The fact that we now have eleven Councils will show up their weakness west of the Bann.
    And theres probably a fault line between the Churchy “nice” Alliance people and the hard nosed secular “we can play as dirty as anyone else” wing.
    That shows up in their over-representation at Executive level. It leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some like myself. Their sense of Entitlement undermines them.

    There WAS a bounce for them after the disgusting violence they suffered at the hands of Fleggers last year. And with the DUP less than supportive…they should have walked.
    There was a definite principle at stake…and they are too wedded to the system to afford principle.
    Arguably SDLP are in the same position. Too wedded to the system to really go for Opposition.

    Ultimately Alliance stabbed potential friends (SDLP and UUP) in the back and might well regret embracing DUP and SF to the extent that they have. They just cant have it both ways.
    I am personally disappointed to see that Ms Curran is standing down in South Belfast. I think she had potential and I hope its not related to Big Duncan embracing overt politics…and I certainly hope its not as a result of theFlegs thing.

    Entirely right and proper that decent people in all parties should have gone to the defence of the Alliance Party in the wake of the attacks on people and property. Ford and Dickson were certainly honourable enpugh to acknowledge it.
    But they might have overplayed the “victims” thing.
    In March last year in Mid Ulster, the Alliance vote was a derisory 1.5%.
    The Alliance Party seems just a little too fond of looking at the bottom line….using victimhood.
    And arguably they are in danger of doing the same with Anna Lo.
    The racist attacks on her are an absolute disgrace.
    But it is perfectly reasonable to have “hashtag stand up for Anna” and its possible to have “hashtag stand up for Anna but I wouldnt vote Alliance if they paid me”.

    So La Mon House.
    With a party so full of oldies ….I cant understand why a discount cannot be arranged for people who have a Bus Pass.
    Yet another reason not to vote for them. :)

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    > With a party so full of oldies …

    The first year I went to party conferences, Alliance was the first one that had kids wandering around, a lot of couples, and very few men in suits and ties. Very similar feel to the SDLP conference (except more delegates in the hall listening to the speeches than at the SDLP!)

  • Charles_Gould

    Alliance can probably expect to grow a bit, I get the sense its demographic is on the rise. I’d expect them to start to be able to do better in the outer-outer Belfast area, places like Ballymena Larne Craigavon Ballymoney etc

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    Alan,

    Good post. Euro elections (and most Westminster elections outside of a few constituencies like East Belfast) are not about winning for Alliance but about brand promotion and testing out marketing themes. It is like congressional, gubernatorial and presidential races for the Libertarian Party in the U.S. Alliance fully expects anywhere from a third to a half of its Assembly and Council voters to vote for other candidates or to stay home in a European election. I imagine that this year Alliance is probably concentrating heading off any threat from NI21 to its electorate. It looks as if they don’t have much to worry about in this election.

  • Framer

    Alliance has got too used to a media blanket of uncritical approval. The voters may be less forgiving.
    Look at the way David Ford managed to escape from the OTR fiasco. He expects us to believe that his top civil servant ‘rightly’ hid the fact that he was merrily carrying on the NIO policy of issuing letters to OTRs, as and when Gerry Kelly got in touch with a name.
    Ford announced that a civil servant is not obliged to tell a new or incoming Minister of previous policy details. (The file papers are blocked off!) This is patent nonsense and the Commons enquiry will reveal it to be so.
    The NIO section who issued the letters was transferred to his DOJ in 2010. It wasn’t a question of new ministers or administration.
    Anyway, a new minister may indeed not be allowed to see the background files of his departmental predecessor but he has to be told of what actions his civil servants are undertaking in his name. Even Sir Humphrey would have mumbled something.
    Either Ford has been fooled, or feels he has to protect his top man, who in NI is actually the head of the department (not the minister).

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    Im afraid Framer is right.
    Ford is nothing more than a poodle and Idont think he emerged well from the OTR fiasco.

  • Morpheus

    “Ford is nothing more than a poodle and I don’t think he emerged well from the OTR fiasco.”

    Not so sure. Representatives of SF/SDLP/DUP/UUP/PUP were present at the Policing Board briefing in 2010, the only ones missing from the party were Alliance so he could have plausible deniability – the rest have no excuse. There are questions to be answered though, like how come the NI Prison Service, which comes under his remit, not only knew about the scheme but used it 10 times.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Framer,

    If anything else, throwing your top departmental civil servant under a bus for the sake of political expediency is no way to win the loyalty of the people who are working for you.

  • Comrade Stalin

    No competent politician would issue the kind of strong denial that Ford did knowing that it could come back in a few months with a Commons report. On that basis as well as others I doubt Ford is lying about this.

    Alliance were an irrelevance when all this stuff was being negotiated – is it really that surprising ?

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    No. I dont think its just a matter of ford not knowing and his top civil servant knowing.
    There is a permanent government …the top civil servants…who really have more in common with their NIO counterparts than they have to any Departmental Minister.
    Thats maybe not a big issue in Environment or Agriculture but certainly the case with Justice.
    I dont think that ONE person can really know something that a Minister wont know.
    More likely that a handful of top people would know.
    The dynamics are more likely that the advisors closest to David Ford knew and he didnt.
    The conversations in Justice….how would they have gone.
    Ford: Is this right about The OTRs?
    Top Justice Man: Yes Minister.
    Ford: And did you know about it?
    TJM: Yes Minister…but we couldnt tell you.
    Ford: Ack never worry…

  • Comrade Stalin

    The entire department were part of the security apparatus within the NIO until 2010 so that’s a given. Why do you think it’s implausible that in a period of a couple of years the civil servants would not have downloaded everything they knew into Ford’s head ?

  • DC

    The Alliance party seem to lack a bit of strategic direction, what direction they do have on shared future is given to that party, when it suits, by nationalism, this compact works together so long as it is about reducing sovereign symbols. You see nationalists knowing that there is not any legitimate policy reason to put the tricolour up instead in spite work with Alliance to remove British symbols. Such as in Belfast City Hall, the Alliance party never had the mandate to pull something like this off in Belfast as it was a minority party with no emotional attachment to the union flag because of its social background and those that vote for it.

    I have concerns that using nationalism to reduce sovereign symbols is not really the right sort of dynamic that is going to lead to a shared future.

    They are open to the charge of not sound on sovereignty nor the symbols of sovereignty!

    What happened Alliance’s designated days for all councils proposal at the Assembly, vetoed I assume? I haven’t checked up to find out…

    Gopher on here might have a view on Alliance frittering away bargaining power that was there in Belfast such as only moving on designated days for Belfast if other councils did the same, now Alliance has moved on Belfast and now has no bargaining power or leverage to get designated days elsewhere. This is what I mean by lack of strategic direction and the ability to think strategically to get proper change.

    Now, today, if you were to do an audit of the sovereign flag it would be safe to say it has reduced across the range.

    It’s a strange sort of shared future that is built on reducing sovereign identity and to this date replacing it with nothing else, to the delight of republicans who enjoy helping out.

  • aquifer

    If Anna Lo is allowed to speak out and be herself this Euro Election could be great.

    There is no such thing as Off Message when evicting sectarian gangmasters.

    When others have used violence to coerce people, having the gall to stand up and speak with force is a manifesto.

    And picking arguments with other ‘centre’ candidates could even suggest that policies matter more than flags.

    Would criticising the binary storylines of our tribal newspapers be having too much fun?

    The ‘anger’ in the headline as sectarian pretence.

  • http://www.wordpress.ianjamesparsley.com IJP

    Alliance policy is (and, when DC was a member, was) designated days in all councils.

    The Alliance amendment was for designated days in all Councils.

    That is the only reasonable, sensible compromise even though 97/108 MLAs pretend otherwise.

    Alliance will pick up most of the rational vote. Probably 8-9%…

  • Morpheus

    DC you really, really, really need to change the record and open your eyes/mind a little.

    The recent motion to fly The Union Flag on designated days was absolutely 100% consistent with the Alliance’s policy in Belfast. The reason it was defeated was 2 fold:

    1. Those who opt to fly The Union Flag 365 days a years (ie. Antrim, Ards, Ballymena, Banbridge, Carrickfergus, Castlereagh, Coleraine, Larne, Newtownabbey and North Down Councils) would have had a reduction in the number of days the flag flies forced on them to the same as Belfast….and Stormont, Lisburn, the rest of the UK and in line with the College of Arms recommendations, And God knows we ALL know how you don’t like that.

    2. Those who opt for neutrality (ie. Cookstown, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, Limavady, Magherafelt, Moyle, Newry and Mourne, Strabane and Omagh) would have a flag flying policy forced upon them preventing them from having neutrality.

    So when it comes to the Super-Councils 6 would have a reduction in the number of days the flag flies and 5 would have been forced from a position of neutrality so the motion was never going to win…but at least the Alliance were consistent in putting it forward.

    The symbols in Belfast City Hall will change DC, that’s just the way it is so you better get ready for it coming. The symbols, artifacts and all the other crap in there will change to be representative of the tax-paying people of Belfast and the history of the city dating back to The Bronze Age – not the last 100 years of Unionism. That coming, that’s a given.

    You have a funny idea if what a shared future means and your ‘moral compass’ or ‘social conscience’ or whatever the buzzword is this week needs to change. A shared future is one where both communities are treated equally, no small print, no terms and conditions, equally.

    Get this into your head, Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, that has not changed one iota because there has not been a referendum as per the GFA. The flag of Northern Ireland has not changed one iota because there has not been a referendum yet (I added yet because I believe that we need something that represents all of us and doesn’t stick a big fat wedge between us – but that’s just me) The only thing that can change is the flag flying policy and if you want someone to blame for The Union Flag being contentious then simply look at the previous generations of unionists who used and abused it. They are the ones who your faux-outrage should be aimed at.

    As seen above nationalist dominated councils favor a total neutrality policy which was their preferred policy for Belfast. The Alliance prevented this from happening. Just say thanks and jog on

  • Gopher

    That is why I will no longer will be voting Alliance DC despite being a designated days man and fully in favour of a new Northern Ireland flag. They threw away a bargaining position and got nothing. Now you read on every thread mono cognitive nationalisms contempt for the party. Appeasing people who cant even say “Northern Ireland” (which screws having an agreed flag) and getting nothing in return is not building a shared future it is a capitulation.

  • Morpheus

    “They threw away a bargaining position and got nothing.”

    Rubbish. They made all the right moves – they got legal advice, they got advice from The Equality Commission, they found out what was done in the rest of the UK, they engaged in the 10 years of debate and took a position. Not only did they stick to it they made SF/SDLP change from their position to endorsing theirs.

    Even when the Alliance were targeted in the cowardly, disgusting leaflets and they were getting firebombs, death threats, bullets in the post etc. they showed strength and integrity by sticking to their policy. They could’ve easily – and I mean easily – abstained from the vote and what would’ve happened then?

    They have now put forward a motion to implement that across Northern Ireland. What’s the issue?

    People are not stupid, they can see through the bollix.

  • Framer

    I never suggested Ford was lying, just that he naively accepted the explanation given by the head of the Department of Justice, his permanent secretary. Or perhaps the notion of throwing Mr Perry under a bus when he’s the boss was too close to lese majeste. They have to get along together.
    Presumably the conversation went like this.
    Perry: I couldn’t possibly have told you about the letters I was signing due to convention.
    Ford: I do understand.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Framer,

    Any number of retired civil servants could refute the suggestion that there is a policy that they do not brief incoming ministers on the internal discussions of the previous administrations. So far, none have come forward to say this is so.

    Until someone can come up with some actual proof that Ford’s story is untrue, I think the reasonable thing is to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Party conference coverage now online